Your Sunday Brunch Special: Mormon Free Will as Primary or Emergent in History as a Superposition of the King Follett Sermon and Polygamy

Free will is often confused with what Latter-day Saints have traditionally named Free Agency (and later emphasis: Moral Agency). There is a background.

In Joseph Smith’s (JS) teaching after 1838 there is a clear notion of uncreated souls=spirits=minds. This is represented in Mormon literature after 1890 by JS’s King Follett Sermon (KFS)—a name externally attached to JS’s April 7, 1844 sermon after a relatively short time, at least by the 1850s. In KFS, Souls are not created and exist in some way as permanent beings that can have no end because they have no beginning. KFS is the historical representative of this idea because it was the most frequently published of JS’s sermons through time. Which KFS, is a legitimate question because there are many versions. That is for another time perhaps.

How does polygamy play into the idea of Free Will? It does it by means of emergent souls. In simplified terms, the answer extends back to early revelations (Joseph Smith Translation and some other early documents) and the rationalization of polygamy by one of its most difficult children, Orson Pratt (I mean that metaphorically, Pratt was sharply shaped by polygamy). Why polygamy? If Pratt was going to accept polygamy as divine order, there had to be reasons–theological–cosmological reasons–and those reasons could not rest on whether JS was some sort of fool for his lusts. Pratt was an important voice there. If he was going to accept JS as the voice of God in modern times, he needed a rationale for polygamy and beginning near the time of JS’s death and becoming more detailed and definite with time, Pratt’s ideas formed a partial basis for official belief. His logic was that polygamy was vital to the Mormon Project and it represented the combination of several religious threads in (1) common antebellum social thought (gender roles) and (2) the early Mormon idea that God created spirits, and (3) the Mormon heaven was a material image of the human world on earth. This meant that creating spirits, which are in any Mormon theology “children” of God, required something radical. Adopted souls for JS (“children” of God), were transformed into begotten souls (“children” of God via reproduction) for Pratt (not just Pratt of course–Eliza Snow and Brigham Young had somewhat different versions but in essence the same). Pratt was very literal about his idea of begotten: spirits were the result of sexual intercourse between God and his wives. And so, God *needed* wives, plural wives, because, Pratt argued, spirit gestation took time (maybe not a heavenly 9 months but still, time). And God needed to make spirits fast. Pratt worked out that spirits had to be the result of exalted sex, not physical babies, via 1 Cor 15—co-passenger reasoning from the idea that the resurrected had no blood. The resurrected were solely animated by Spirit (sometimes it was supposed to be a fluid that circulated in the bloodless veins–interesting problems there) and hence their offspring would be spirits. (I’m not arguing for the reasoning here, just reporting). The more spirits you make, the greater your glory to put it in frank terms and thus the greater your familial joy—hence lots of wives is a real boon in Pratt’s very earth-like heaven. For Young, who took things in a somewhat different direction (God-Adam/Eve made human physical bodies too, to do it, he/she just ate a lot of fruit in the Garden of Eden and so “charged” himself with a lot of physical stuff and so was able to produced physical offspring on earth by sex again), the Process was the eternal thing, not the individual spirits. By the twentieth century, Mormons like James Talmage identified the emergent minds in heaven as parent-derived. Their eternity was inherited through an infinite regress of Gods (Pratt didn’t like that part of it but Young did).

Even outside observers compiling encyclopedias of religion noted the contrast between Pratt, Snow, Young, etc. and JS and careful readers on the inside saw the same thing. No one likes to think their beliefs harbor contradictions or inconsistencies even if they take place via evolutionary means over time. Age of Reason and all that. By 1912 the church’s First Presidency (Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, Charles W. Penrose) decided to suppress KFS and banned it from church literature for, among other reasons, it’s teaching about souls. When those three men died, KFS made its return. But it made a return in the context of spirits born in heaven. The logic of reconciliation of the ontology of KFS with that of Young, Snow, and co. had two fronts. I’ll mention one below. The rest may be for another post. Or, you can read the book.

Emergent souls, whatever the details, had two evolving links to the social landscape and the world of science. One, was a consequence of sexuality, the other a consequence of a branch of materialism. The first emerged(!) from the implication of sexual reproduction in heaven. Offspring must be sexed themselves–male and female. The spirit offspring were male and female–that was the perfect world of heaven, the normative nature of sexuality as seen from the pinnacle of the Temple was two and only two sided. That made deviations from that norm the result of the fallen world of mortality–what else could it be? This is a way to see Jesus in all this (fall, atonement). The point of sex on earth was reproduction and that was its point in heaven. Boyd K. Packer: would GOD confuse your gender? Must be the devil. Alternatives need not apply. You can see the reluctance of church leaders to believe in a material predisposition to some other sexuality. Hence in the church’s 1995 The Family: A Proclamation to the World, church leaders could announce that spirit genders were fixed and eternal. And thus there could never be a permanent place for alternative sexualities in doctrine. Sealing heterosexual couples made for more Gods in heaven and the more spirits by reproduction (sorry folks but the boat of polygamy enhancement of glory has sailed but its theology remains).

In today’s science, the world is not divided up in two ways, but it’s pretty much a done deal in the case of mind. Minds emerge from the complexities of Brain and Brain emerged out of evolution. The end point, if not the evolutionary logic, had perfect correlation with Young, Pratt, etc. Children of God and Mother(s?) have Minds that emerge out of being born in heaven, in just the same way as it does in human babies. It’s the Analogy, brothers and sisters. And that makes evolution problematic. Very problematic. It’s what Joseph F. Smith was feeling in 1909 (and made clear in another official statement, this time about evolution). Consciousness falls into this debate somewhere but let us not confuse things with arguments about that and intelligence. For science, the mind/consciousness emerges from the brain which emerged out of the dark genesis of evolutionary process–there are various opinions about what this means but that’s another long road. For the Proclamation, mind emerged in heaven the way it does in babies on earth except its a divine gift maybe. The Free Will of the post title comes into play by three methodologies (not going to define Free Will here). In science there is some division. Free Will may emerge with consciousness or it may be an illusion of consciousness. Second, in Mormonism, Free Will is some kind of gift of God that comes with one’s spirit being born via sex in heaven (confusing Free Will with Agency gets you this, for example)–you can hear Eliza singing in the background about her first “primeval childhood” or, sex—->birth on earth, depending on the brand of Mormonism or the timeline. Third, Free Will is just a property of eternal souls. Just there. It has no beginning, no end. Take your pick, or don’t. You decide.

Now, how about KFS? Joseph F. Smith and his counselors were brought up with the logic and cosmology of polygamy: there was sexual reproduction in heaven that generated the spirits, souls, minds, of humankind. This was a major point (among others) that saw KFS as just wrong. You had to say that carefully of course. When KFS returned to favor in the 1930s, it brought some baggage but thirty years before, some of it had been reconciled with the ontology of polygamy by church thinkers like general authority Seventy, B. H. Roberts. Roberts and a group of others in the same school were the worker bees here. It went like this. For JS to be right, there must be a way that minds are not emergent. But how do you get spirit babies then? You postulate another analogy: on earth, spirits get entangled with bodies at birth and hence minds are imported (are there TWO minds?). The emergent part is just smoke and mirrors, it’s developmental meaning it’s just clearing the fog. How about the heavenly family then. Sure spirits still are born in heaven, but their minds come about via minds getting entangled with spirits. It’s Analogy, baby! This dual argument saves some of JS’s claims and it saves polygamy’s Utah theology at the same time. Minds just precede spirits. But then there are a host of questions that make things complicated. Something the First Presidency of 1912 could see via letters coming in from Saints who read church manuals. That is a whole other story.

JS creates problems with his idea of eternal spirits. Though he doesn’t seem to want to do it, a consequence of his claims is that spirits are transcendent. He wants “spirit” to be on the order of the material world. But he was working with a worldview that was conditioned by his environment. A hundred years after his death, the universe was no longer seen as fixed and permanent. It’s dynamic and decaying, spreading out, fading. Material has become a recipe for disorder and death. So a literal flesh and bones (no blood!) God is problematic. Protons (probably) decay over eons. Atoms dissolve. God must be pushed back into a transcendent world and so are JS’s souls. It’s wonderfully complicated over against JS’s desire to simplify with everything being “material” and thus “real.” Matter is not easy. And it’s mostly empty space anyway. And I’m heading off to church.


  1. Goodness, such winding rationales we make. Thank you for the brief historical wandering.
    I do love seeing the bits that have filtered over the decades and how we’ve adapted and trimmed to suit what questions we have now. Heavenly Mother, souls created from intelligences, etc.
    However, I wish we’d leave some things to “it’s beyond our understanding”, or even “we don’t know”. Eternal gestation is deeply problematic (putting it lightly), gender always had exceptions but were swept away as “fallen mortality”, patriarchy being the “way of heaven”.

    It’s such a narrow, human, thing, to prefer solid answers over the variations in real people.

  2. Fascinating. Thank you for this excellent post. This history or theory of reverse engineered theology makes a lot of sense. Also the idea that our revelations are constrained by what is already accepted seems so obvious, but I’ve never thought about it. We like to think revelations they come straight from God out of nowhere, but that rarely seems be the case. I wonder what revelations we could receive now by people who fully understand and accept all of what is currently known about the world and universe that wasn’t known in Joseph Smith’s time.
    I take the third view on the issue of free will in Mormonism. It just is and always has been. But I also don’t believe spirits get spirit bodies in the preexistence through godly sex. More like an adoption model. All those intelligences that always existed saw God’s advanced nature and said we want to learn to be like you and God said okay I will try to teach you. And our brief turn on earth is part of the process.

  3. Thank you for going so carefully step by step through such a complex history of ideas. I need to read it again to be sure I grasp it, but the way you lay it out is clearer and more helpful than anything I’ve read in connection with it. I understand why minds like Pratt, et al., were compelled to work with these ideas, although my own temperament says to mostly leave it alone until we have more knowledge, and work on things much nearer to home. But it’s also a good reminder for the questions that do intrigue me that just because A is true and B is true, putting the two together doesn’t necessarily make C true.

  4. I’m certainly looking forward to the book.

  5. Antonio Parr says:

    I much prefer this:

    From Deuteronomy 6:

    Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:

    And from Isaiah 55:

    [8] For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.

    [9] For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    And this, from Matthew 22:

    37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

    38 This is the first and great commandment.

    With genuine love and affection for my fellow Saints, the increasing tendency on the part of many Latter-Day Saints to domesticate our understanding of God has resulted in an abandonment of expressions of wonder and praise and worship for the God who gave us life. Attempts to limit the ways and thoughts of God result in a corresponding reduction of affection for our Creator, and this puts us in opposition to what Jesus has called the first great commandment.

    There is beauty in this passage from Revelations 5:

    13 And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.

    We would do well to embrace such unqualified adoration for God.

  6. I think, at this point, you have been promising me this book for more than 10 years. I hope it comes. This post feels like a recap of every post on theology for the same period of time. Thanks for this.

  7. Matt W., they tell me next year. It’s in the book process which can take a long time. 500 pages of paper plus 600 in online appendices.

  8. I’m not known as a scientist or theologian; I’m not really a scholar, or even just a free-range thinker. I’m probably an erstwhile forager, but this is some tasty silage, although dense and loaded with fiber.
    (Can I stretch that metaphor any further?)

    Seriously though, this makes (this portion of) our history and theology nearly comprehensible. And I’ll need to follow Ardis’ lead, and read through it again, but it’s refreshing to see confusion put into order, however tenuous it may be. In my day job as a housewife, I well know the inevitability of entropy on the order one works to create.

    Antonio, long time no see! Your scripture lineup in your comment was beautiful, and beautifully curated, and a bonus refreshment to the thread. That part was fully apropos, and also, well, duh. Your added opinion was perfectly authoritative— in an LDS contextual way— but I’d like to run that part by Orson Pratt or Talmage or Roberts— or Snow— or any of those old-school, thinking believers, before I accept your call to repent. Perhaps in another life.

    And there’s a book coming? Oh dear.

  9. If you’re going to claim the King Follett sermon supercedes earlier thought about “creation” of spirits and Gods, then you also need to square it with a later sermon given after Follett where Joseph says, “Where was there ever a son without a father? and where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor? And every thing comes in this way.”

    I think there is a thread between Follett and the above statement that you are trying to forcibly server by focusing on this dichotomy between uncreated spirit, intelligences, etc. and spiritual parents. It’s not BY disagreeing with JS, it’s JS disagreeing with JS and agreeing again with JS. Or rather maybe he’s not disagreeing just fleshing out the concept of another dimension of the same doctrine.

    You might as well offer up the instant response to fathers and sons by insisting the question be answered where did the first father come from. Or you might as well argue that the earth was never formed because the matter is made from its eternal. It still required “creation” or organizing, even though elements were eternal or you might say coequal with God. Who created those elements, once could insist and then here we are from that speculation, one builds an (il)logical chain of doctrine that supports lgbtq theories about gender and sexuality.

    The reality is there are contradictions all across scripture and the sayings of Jesus IF we try to force a simple consistent liberalism view. Yes, there is a time for literal takes. The fact that various prophets downplayed or relegated any particular sermon is not a concern to me as they have various priorities they are focusing on and creating more questions and potential contentions over various doctrines is only going to pull away from their focus.

    Don’t you find it ironic that you’re taking a rather fundamentalist approach, from modern gender theory perspective, and applying it backwards to your interpretation of KFD, JS, etc?

  10. Antonio Parr says:

    MDearest –

    My scriptural thread is how I “see” God: the life giver; the creator; the one whose power fashioned the galaxies – all of them – and who is worthy of my eternal longings and my eternal praise.

    I believe this is the God of scripture and further believe the Isaiah verses that proclaim that His thoughts are not my thoughts and His ways are not my ways. I do not in any way feel threatened by such a concept.

    The peculiar need that many Latter-Day Saints feel to contain God and His glory is bewildering. It might be a step forward to just be still and know that He is God.

  11. “Eternal gestation is deeply problematic”.

    Now do infinite atonement. Which is more problematic. Bringing life to a universe of death or bringing eternal life to a universe of destructive choices?

    Trees that produce fruit, do so their entire lifespan or actively preparing to do so their entire lifespan. The Savior had an interesting reply to the tree that didn’t produce fruit.

    Who looks upon a child and wishes it never were? Got better things to do?

    Or just upset that some dimensions of the burden seems to unevenly fall upon the woman? The whole idea of flowers and trees bringing forth fruit spontaneously could seem to apply.

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